In a brief glimpse she saw him catch fire, first his shirt, then his hair, then all of him. He went up in a blaze and stood before her, on fire, without turning a hair…
Where to even begin with this book. It is a complicated novel that deals with death, destruction, and our human-strive to piece together memories and make sense of the past. I was utterly taken with it and cursed the moments of the day when I was busy working and couldn’t get my hands on it.
Before I Burn is a novel told in different points in time. It begins during the summer of 1978 in Norway: a rural area is being tormented by an unknown arsonist and Johanna Vatneli rises just after midnight to find that her home is the next victim. Hers was the eighth fire and the reader soon realizes that the opening prose is actually being told by Gaute, the first-person narrator. Gaute was a newborn in the area when his neighbors’ properties were being torched. Most of the structures were barns and other uninhabited buildings, but as the fires progress, the arsonist becomes more brazen and targets homes with people still inside.
The novel blends together Gaute’s desire to piece together the history of that summer and the impact the events had on his neighbors with his own background leading up to the present day.
Ever since early childhood I have been told the story of the fires. At the beginning it was my parents who told me, but it wasn’t until I grew up and heard it from others that I realised that in fact it was all true…It has pursued me for thirty years although I have never known exactly what happened or indeed what it was all about.
Taking his neighbors’ recollections and letters, Gaute composes an elegant retelling that makes the reader forget that he was just a newborn when the fires overwhelmed the area. The identity of the arsonist is not necessarily the pull of the story. Gaute doesn’t string along the mystery of who it was, but instead, makes the real intrigue about the why.
Besides the present day and the summer of 1978, Gaute also includes his law school days when he totally drops out of his career path, while trying to come to terms with the impending death of his own father. This event is what leads him to a life of writing. He balls together different memories of his father’s unpleasant death and weaves them through the pyromaniac’s story.
The real draw of Before I Burn is the prose itself. Don Bartlett really deserves some official honor for his impressive translation from the original Norwegian. The language is spare, but descriptive. In its simplicity, the prose is delivered starkly and vividly. When a line stood out to me, I would re-read it, finding it new with each subsequent glance. It’s almost as if Heivoll through Bartlett has cleared away all of the ash of the burnt buildings and left us with exactly what we need to see.
It was only now she noticed the acrid smell of fire pervading the room. He was wearing a white shirt that was stained down the back and sleeves, there was a long tear over the shoulder where she could see the pale skin beneath, his hair was unkempt, his hands dirty.
After reading this book, I did my usual investigating (re: googling). I found a strange trend among reviewers: they seem to categorize this book as crime fiction. Yes, there is a crime committed (arson), but beyond that it is a far stretch to lump this book into that genre. Like earlier mentioned, the crime itself is not the big draw–the language and fictional Gaute’s personal connection to all of the events are the import here. I can’t help but think: Did these people read the same book that I did?
Before I Burn is now available in English in the US through Graywolf Press. According to their website, the book “was a best seller in Norway. The novel won the Brage Prize and was nominated for the Critics Prize and the Booksellers’ Prize, and it has been sold to more than twenty countries.” Don Bartlett appears to be one of the go-to English language translators for Norwegian works, too.